Virtue Rewarded: The Contemporary Student and Horatio Alger

In The Journal of General Education, 1984.


"A young child dreams of being rich and of some day being a famous business tycoon. He goes to school and studies hard. The hard work pays off by his receiving many scholarships for his higher education. After graduation he receives numerous job offers from very prestigious firms from all over the world. He starts at the bottom of the business ladder and works his way up to be a top executive."

The paragraph above was not written as a parody of Horatio Alger, nor is it reproduced in an effort to deride its student author. It is meant to be an indication of the endurance of the Alger myth and the relevance of this myth to college students in the 1980s.

The paragraph was written as a sincere and serious part of a composition arguing against federal budget cuts in student aid. The author was a nineteen-year-old freshman who had never read Horation Alger, but his vision of the road to success provides an unusually unobscured view of an American myth that we associate with the nineteenth-century author of over one hundred children's novels. It is a myth that continues to shape the beliefs and actions of college students today.

A teacher might understandably dismiss this student's thoughts because they are simplistic, vague, and unoriginal, but those are also characteristics of fairy tales, legends, and myths: these traditional story forms are simple because they portray action in a direct, empirical manner; they are vague because they draw us into the world of dreams; they are unoriginal because they express the commonality of experience. As teachers, we should make some effort to recognize and examine the myths that shape our students' beliefs and actions.

We often appear to base the justification of our pedagogy on two false assumptions about the mythological baggage our students bring to college. We sometimes act as though we believe that our students are dumb blanks who arrive in our classrooms without beliefs, commitments, or thoughts. Other times we act as though we assume that our students enter our classrooms with beliefs roughly identical to our own which they simply cannot articulate well. In truth, our students show up with an extensive catalog of myths of which they are only dimly aware, a mythology that may, in some ways, be foreign to us.

The student who wrote the paragraph with which this essay opens was probably most conscious of his wearying effort to fill out a 500-word composition while avoiding grammatical errors, but in this numbed state he expressed with great clarity a vision stored in many of our students' minds, a dream that, consciously or not, affects their actions, the dream of self-improvement and virtue's reward. We should approach this dream with caution, but approach it we must.

Too often the texts we select for our general education classes ignore the myths that drive our students or display an elitist scorn for ideas that we may see as unsophisticated. We have all heard the timeworn complaint that teachers always select "depressing" novels. The complaint has some validity. Collectively, college faculty are biased against simple, linear solutions to complex social and personal problems. In fact, most of us distrust anything that presents itself as a solution of any sort. We repeatedly ask our students to read, understand, and analyze material that presents the world as multiplistic, enigmatic, or even absurd. Thus, the students' complaint is a plea for relevance, an expression of the natural desire to see their own beliefs represented.

I think we must recognize the myths that our students carry with them and be willing to examine them without prejudice, for how can we expect our students to take our concerns seriously when we dismiss theirs out of hand? We should not expect our students to grow beyond these dreams until they examine and understand them, because in understanding them, they are often understanding a part of themselves.

Horatio Alger, Jr. is an author who allows us to examine some of these myths undisguised by literary sophistication. Between seventeen million and three hundred million Americans have read a Horation Alger novel [1]; the phrase "a Horatio Alger story," has entered our language, and most contemporary Americans feel they understand its meaning; the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in 1982 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Alger's birth; yet I suspect that Alger's novels rarely appear on the reading lists of college-level courses. In fact, when I described this article to a well-read colleague, he was surprised to discover that Alger had been a "real person." Any analysis of contemporary mythology or popular cultural beliefs reminds us that we are, in some ways, paradoxically most ignorant of the most familiar.

There are many sound reasons for our collective decision to ignore Alger's work: the novels exhibit limited literary skill--flat characterizations, heavy-handed moralizing, formulaic predictability; the books are written for children and therefore seem inappropriate for college-age students; the novels' informative use as guidebooks and etiquette manuals is outdated; Alger's optimistic belief in the compatibility of success and virtue in an unrestricted free enterprise environment seems singularly inappropriate to an age too familiar with entrepreneurial abuses and too familiar with the many people for whom success remains a cruelly elusive dream. In short, the little contemporary use of Alger in academia is largely nostalgic or ironic. I suspect that most professors find it difficult to take him seriously. Although I share this difficulty at times, I know that an Alger novel can make a valuable addition to a syllabus because the mythic vision it presents is relevant to our students' perception of themselves and their society.

Alger did not create the myth of improvement that we associate with the phrase "American Dream," nor did he consciously attempt to express the ethos of his age. Like many other authors of his time, his purpose was simply to write instructive and entertaining stories for young people. But unpretentious as his purpose may have been, his mixture of predictable surprises and gentle preachment, of pragmatic behavioral advice and wondrously fortunate happenstance, captured the imagination of his nation. In a very real sense, Alger was an American folk artist, primitively expressing archetypical beliefs and desires that transcend the pluralism of American society.

And the myths Alger celebrated are still lodged in the hearts of contemporary Americans. Undoubtedly, they must compete with a variety of contradictory cultural messages, but most Americans, whose lives are subtly and mysteriously illuminated by these dreams each day, are not overly troubled by these logical flaws; like Alger they intuitively weave opposing myths into a web of commonly shared belief.

In a variety of ways out culture encourages our beliefs in self-improvement and the providential reward of virtue. Advertisements imply that if we virtuously use a particular toothpaste or drive a certain car, we will be rewarded with health, beauty, money, love, or social status; magazines titillate us with stories about 23-year-old millionaires who start building computers in their garages when they were twelve; portions of state budgets are based on thousands of individuals' dreams of winning a lottery; politicians glibly promise to solve crime, unemployment, and disease; we make The Simple Solution to Rubik's Cube a best-seller and reaffirm our shared dream that reason can overcome any of life's puzzles.

But I am not advocating that Alger should be brought into the college classroom merely to provide a lesson in American cultural beliefs and experiences of our students. The Alger myth lives in the most sophisticated of our students. Many will openly admit their admiration for his thought and unquestioningly enjoy his writing more than other "classic" authors. More will be able to intellectually disassociate themselves from Alger, while secretly feeling a portion of themselves respond to his simple message.

The formula that Alger intuitively pieced together in over one hundred novels succeeded because it encompassed competing elements in American thought without questions their contradictions; the dark archetypical fears of childhood nightmares and bright pragmatic advice for overcoming them; the romantic and the rational; the magical and the mundane. The formula does not push the reader to understand these paradoxes but merely presents them as part of the natural landscape; moreover, Alger shows that an individual, even a young, uneducated, and fatherless boy can succeed in such a contradictory environment.

Like classic fairy tales and many children's works, Alger's novels introduce the archetypical fears of youth: abandonment and impotence. His heroes are orphans, or suppose they are orphans, or are temporarily disinherited. They suffer the absence of parental support: the poverty, hardship, and injustice that result from not having an adult defender. Their daily life is the antithesis of protected childhood, a struggle for survival in a world populated by swindlers, thieves, murders, drunkards, ungrateful heirs, pompous aristocrats, and avaricious capitalists. Forced into premature independence, they face physical and moral death. In short, Alger's novels operate against a darkened background, a background that is lightened by the expected surprise of his hero's triumph.

The element of threat heightens the drama of Alger's novels, but he offers his readers a clear-cut plan for combating the darkness of life: the trinity of effort, virtue, and luck. Alger adopts the Protestant Ethic and its encouragement of diligent effort as well as the Victorian myth of self-improvement. To these, he adds practical advice on moral behavior. Because Alger's heroes always succeed, his novels imply that effort and virtue must lead to success, but Alger clearly states that success most often results from some chance opportunity that allows the virtuous and diligent hero to display his merit and get a start toward success.

These improbable opportunities give Alger's novels a magical quality and link him to the long tradition of fairy tales2, but they are not presented as irrational or random; their unbelievability is not intended to shatter the orderliness of Alger's fictional world. Instead they represent the working of a divine order and reason beyond man's comprehension, a providence. For Alger, success, real success as opposed to mere material success, is the reward of Providence for virtue.

Many college students understandably find Alger's message reassuring, for they usually enter college burdened with contradictions they do not fully comprehend. Struggling to adjust to independence and pressured to define their place in the world, they frantically search for vocational programs that seem to guarantee them success and acceptance. Hoping for simple solutions to the growing complexity of their lives, they encounter professors who encourage them to find their own answers and tell them that they must learn to live with multiplicity and ambiguity.

It is not surprising, then, that some students feel as though college is not meeting their perceived needs nor addressing the self they are trying to create. For many, Alger offers a contrast because he speaks directly to their fears and frustrations, fears which they may not understand not be willing to admit. In Alger's archetypical orphans even the white, suburban teenager sees his own anxieties over separation from home and future career reflected. In Alger's formula of effort and virtue, he sees his wish for a simple, direct solution fulfilled. In Alger's equation of success and Providence, he feels his romantic, anti-materialistic guilt lifted.

The typical student recognizes something familiar and comfortable in Alger, something of himself or his family, but he will also be struck by the contrast between his preconception of a "rags to riches" story and the actuality of an Alger novel. For example, the student who expects Alger to advocate materialism confronts Alger's contradictory attitude toward wealth. Each novel focuses on the pursuit of money and his characters' success is always measured monetarily, but he often creates devastating portraits of wealthy men who are motivated by greed and prejudice or boys who display their undemocratic natures by wearing "kid gloves". Alger's vision of success is not a glittering parade of fancy objects and people. For his characters success is respectability. In each novel the contrast between the exciting pursuit of fortune and the boring possession of it is implicit.

Moreover, echoing Carnegie's Gospel of Wealth, Alger felt a successful man carried with him the responsibility to start others on their way to success. Most often the true success of Alger's heroes is their acceptance as part of society: they are lifted up from the "lower classes," their true identity, parentage, and inheritance are recognized; they escape the dependence and disregard afforded to children. Thus, Alger speaks to the eternal student desire to have his true worth recognized and to find his place in the world. This satisfies the contradictory impulses toward individual achievement and communal union.

With careful guidance Alger can help students to examine the myths with which they try to shape their lives, myths they have most often not formulated or examined. They are usually able to identify the contradictions inherent in these myths, and this, in turn, may make them willing to examine more sophisticated visions.

Unfortunately there is only one inexpensive edition of Alger currently available, Macmillans's 1962 edition of Ragged Dick and Mark, The Match Boy. Originally published in 1868 and 1869, respectively, they are the first and third novels in a trilogy that include Fame and Fortune. Ragged Dick was Alger's most popular novel and his first great success. It charts the progress of Richard Hunter from bootblack to up-and-coming businessman. In Mark, The Match Boy the well-established Hunter assists the similar rise of young Mark, a sickly and abused child forced to sell matches.

Rychard Fink's introduction provides a helpful discussion of Alger's literary formula and philosophy, but Fink's biographical commentary is based on Mayes' 1928 biography3 which has been accused of being an imaginative piece of sensational fiction.4


1. William Coyle, "Introduction," to Adrift In New York and The World Before Him (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), p.v.

2. See, John Seelye, "Introduction," to Digging for Gold (New York: Collier-Macmillan, 1968).

3. Herbert Mayes, Alger: A Biography Without A Hero (New York: 1928).

4. See, Frank Bruber, Horatio Alger, Jr. (West Los Angeles: Grover Jones Press, 1961); Frank Gardner, Horatio Alger, or The American Hero Era (Mendota, IL: 1964); John Seelye, "Who Was Horatio? The Alger Myth and American Scholarship," American Quarterly, XVII (Winter 1965).

| Carl Brucker | English Department Home Page |